Grieving for a planet

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Lucy Donaldson

Can you grieve for a planet? Understanding climate grief and how it affects us.

Our daily lives are now saturated with distressing headlines about the climate: fires in Australia, floods in Jakarta, rising sea-levels everywhere. Only a few years ago, threats of climate disruption seemed slow, distant and intangible. Now, the physical impact of the climate crisis is slapping us in the face. 

While we mainly associate grief with the loss of a loved one, there are actually many different kinds of grief. When we grieve something that others do not recognise as being worthy of mourning it is called “disenfranchised grief.” “Solastalgia” is the term used to describe the emotional and existential distress caused by the climate and ecological crisis and appears to be the biggest source of disenfranchised grief around the world today.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a position paper about the direct and indirect psychological impact of the climate emergency on people. The APA lists the following as acute and chronic effects of the climate crisis: “trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress, strains on social relationships, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, aggression and violence, loss of personally important places, loss of autonomy and control, loss of personal and occupational identity, and feelings of helplessness, fear and fatalism.” 

While the psychological impact of our changing climate is more likely to affect those directly affected by floods, fires, or other natural disasters, it can affect anyone. Lately, there have been several instances where the climate emergency has hit me harder than expected. I’m not sure if it’s because I am approaching the age where I’m thinking about becoming a mum, or because the scientific projections, which seemed so far away when I was little, are unfolding quicker than I imagined. Regardless, my intellectual and rational understanding of the climate emergency has now changed to more of an emotional and personal one. 

It is easy to feel powerless, sitting with your metal straw and reusable bottle when the fossil fuel big five have spent £251m on lobbying EU policies in their favour since 2010 and a third of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by only 20 corporations. When the physical implications of the climate crisis are so blatant, so obvious, it is frustrating and disheartening when the political elite of the world refuse to acknowledge its existence. Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate warnings as “alarmist” and his agenda of fossil fuel energy expansion seems obscene in light of recent events. However, if we go by the 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it won’t be long before apathy and denial are no longer options – no one will be able to escape the emergencies predicted over the next century. 

Media outlets over the last decade seem to place a focus on what the individual can do to tackle the climate crisis in their own life. Recycle, use bamboo cotton buds, don’t use cotton buds at all, buy sustainably, ditch fast fashion, go vegan, cycle more, go flight-free, use energy saving bulbs – the list is endless. This focus on the individual has largely resulted in a passive eco-conscious citizen who is more concerned with energy conservation and recycling than protest and structural change. Personal guilt manifests when the virtuous lists and sustainable resolutions are not kept up with. This feeling of failure to “do your bit” coupled with the doomsday narratives pervading the media, can generate a sense of hopelessness.
While it is important that we keep trying to do our bit, it is also important that we recognise and mourn what is already lost, and use that grief to shock the world into action. The individual can only do so much, what we need now is collective action to initiate bigger change. Whether you agree with them or not, the rise of non-violent protests such as Extinction Rebellion and the school strike movement led by Greta Thunberg signal the beginning of a new sense of agency that goes beyond personal guilt for our own carbon vices.


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